When pressed as to why they love their job so much, most rangers will answer with, “Because no two days are the same.” This is very true because in our line of work there are many different variables that, in different combinations,  produce a whole host of interesting experiences on a daily basis. Sightings, guests on your vehicle, weather, areas of the reserve, seasons, lodges; all add to this diversity and keep us coming back in order to experience more of the unknown.

One of these unpredicted and totally unforeseen encounters occured recently whilst we were following the Ntsevu Pride patrolling their territory one morning. After reacting to impala alarm calls we had found the pride walking across some open crests, clearly on the hunt. We had followed them for the better part of an hour before something else got our attention which caused us to forget about the lions very quickly.

For anyone who has spent time at Londolozi you will know that large herds of impalas are not an unusual sight. So as we slowly drove through this particular herd, waiting for the lions to reappear, we noticed that one particular impala had very strange looking horns. We stopped the Land Rover and picked up our binoculars to get a closer look. The growth of the horns started out the same as you would usually see them on a male but then when they got towards the end of the horns they became unusually thin and did not smoothen out in the same direction.

Mg 7678

This was our first view of the impala with the strange looking horns. Notice how thin they are and then how they take on a very strange shape at the top.

An example of what the horns of a mature male impala should look like. Photograph by Alex Jordan

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At first glance we thought it may just be a sub-adult impala whose horns had not yet grown fully but in this photo you can see how different they are to the sub-adult impala in front.

At first we thought this male might have had a birth defect until tracker Rich Mthabine turned around and, with a very confused look on his face, announced that we were looking at a female. I immediately thought Rich was looking at something else and pointed out that we were looking at the “male” with the weird horns. He nodded enthusiastically and told me to look between the legs which would be the second way of determining the sex of a Impala, the first being to look for the presence of horns.
I shifted my binoculars from the horns and employed this secondary technique of gender identification and to my utter amazement I noticed that this “male” who had horns lacked any of the other male attributes that one would usually see between the legs. We seemed to be looking at a female with horns!

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After looking from different angle we confirmed that this Impala lacked any male genitalia.

We were all left quite amazed at this unusual sighting as none of us on the car had ever seen anything quite like that before. She seemed to be interacting with the herd of impala no differently than any of the other females and we didn’t notice any unusual behaviour. After chatting to some of the other rangers and a few other people who have had a lot of experience on safari I found out that it is not an unheard of sighting and a few of them had witnessed other impalas sharing the same traits as this one.

We have had some sightings in the past of a fully grown male Nyala exhibiting female colouration which some have suspected may due to a recessive gene but I couldn’t find too much information on this interesting phenomenon that we witnessed, so unfortunately I do not have a definitive answer for you as to why this female has horns. My guess would be that it probably has something to do with a hormonal imbalance and possibly an excess amount of testosterone in the female.

I would be very interested to hear if anyone else has seen something similar before? And if anyone has any idea on the genetics behind why something like this may happen?


About the Author

James Souchon

Field Guide

James started his guiding career at the world-renowned Phinda Game Reserve, spending four years learning about and showing guests the wonder of the incredibly rich biodiversity that the Maputaland area of South Africa has to offer. Having always wanted to guide in the ...

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on Incredibly Rare Impala Morph

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Joanne Wadsworth

I can imagine your astonishment and am glad you have images of this unusual phenomenon. I agree with your possible conclusions of why this has occurred. However I have a friend in the USA who specializes in genetics and will ask him.

James Souchon

Hi Joanne, thanks for your comments and it will be very interesting to hear what he has to say. Regards, James

Marinda Drake

This is interesting James. If I can remember correctly, I think it was last year that there were reports of a female lion with mane. It was somewhere in Botswana or Zambia.

Marinda Drake

James it is a lioness at Mombo and five lionesses in Moremi Botswana. It is apparently at conception that when the sperm that determine the sex is abherent that this occur. This is probably in my view what happened with the Impala.

James Souchon

Hi Marinda, thanks for your reply. I do wonder if its similar case as to what happened with those lions. All my best to you and Des!

Dina Petridis

what we witnessed once was a breading combination of a waterbuck and a red lechwe .
maybe this one is also something like that ???

James Souchon

Hi Dina, that is very unusual to witness as well! Thanks for the photos you sent me. Regards, James

Denise Vouri

Very interesting. I can’t comment on the impala anomaly, but while at Mombo Camp a few years ago, we were fortunate enough to sight the lioness with a mane. She was part of a pride that contained three other females, three cubs and a couple of males. That was something to see on safari!!

James Souchon

Hi Denise, I have heard about those lions! It must have been an incredible sighting. Thanks for sharing

Barbara Jones

Such a beautiful animal. I don’t know why she has horns, but she is absolutely beautiful! And it seems like she is accepted by the other impalas, something we as humans should also embrace. Thanks so much for sharing these pictures and story. You guys do an awesome job! Can’t wait to visit!

James Souchon

Thanks for the compliments Barbara. There are always so many lessons we can take from nature!

Guy Lacy Chapman

I never expected the story to unfold like this. Wow! Very interesting!

James Souchon

Thanks Guy, it certainly was very interesting to witness!

Mark Ditts

Hi James. In my line of work I have come across a few species that are hermaphrodite (I use that term very loosely here). Effectively they have external female genitals but internal testicles (an anatomical abnormality). There is a long explanation as to why this happens which I won’t bore you with. I would bet that this particular female would not be able to reproduce as her internal female organs would be absent/under developed but due to internal testicular tissue she displays male characteristics ie horns.
Thanks for an interesting sighting. Cheers

Mark Ditts

My wording was really bad to start there but what I meant was I have seen ‘hermaphrodites’ in a few species I have worked on. Apologies for that

James Souchon

Hi Mark, thanks very much for your reply. It’s always fascinating to witness these anomalies of nature and try and understand them a bit better. Regards, James

Cynthia House

How intriguing I wonder if she is fertile ?

James Souchon

Hi Cynthia, I also wonder the same thing. Luckily she is very easily recognised with those strange horns so if she is still around during the impala lambing season at the end of the year we may be able to find out. Having said that we haven’t had any more sightings of her recently so only time will tell. Thanks for your comment. Regards, James

Cynthia House

Look forward to hearing more about this unique animal if you sight her again. Thank you for the wonderful blog, I really enjoy my Londolozi ‘fix’ every morning in my inbox….Cynthia

Callum Evans

I’ve heard of this happening in nyala and kudu, but never in impala!!!

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